How do I relate to them? Communicate? Will I be adequate in dealing with them? What if I can’t? What will people think of me working with them? Can I handle being around them? Could I be comfortable around them? Wow. Like most people, I’d relegated an entire sector of the human population into the classification of one pronoun.
Before entering Wendell Foster’s Campus doors, I had to conduct a “baggage check.” The “baggage check” is when one opens up his or her baggage, and takes a look at what s/he carries in emotions, antiquated beliefs, stereotypical thinking and feelings. The purpose is to identify and clear the cobwebs of fear, doubt, insecurity, and anxiety. Conducting the “baggage check” on one’s stuff takes a great deal of courage, and a willingness to look at oneself, in one’s own heart with an objective eye. Here’s what I found in my baggage:
“Them.” “Them” are people who have names, unique personalities, feelings! Despite a stereotypical thought that individuals with developmental disabilities are “stupid” or clueless, they aren’t. They grasp how people see, talk to and behave towards them. My thoughts succumbed to the popular classification practice our society uses in segregation.
Guilt. I realized I felt guilty, because I am okay and they aren’t. Of course, this irrational idea couldn’t be further from the truth! Individuals with developmental disabilities are okay, more than okay! Their human spirits are simply housed in a different make and model of physical body because of brain damage brought on by circumstances beyond their control: oxygen deprivation, physical abuse, head injuries, epileptic seizures, etc. Fat v. thin, tall v. short, physically disable v. physically able, black v. white; shapes, sizes, colors do not define our “okay-ness” but rather our uniqueness.
Worst Fears Realized. Individuals with development disabilities mirror our worst fears of living life in their wheelchair. You and I have heard others say, or may have said ourselves, “I’d rather die than live life like that.” We non-disabled are challenged by the physical deformity and malfunctions, and these beautiful souls force us to face and challenge those inner fears and insecurities. People with developmental disabilities facilitate within us an “attitude of gratitude” for our health, and teach us, by example, humility in the face of life challenges.
Screw Up. I was scared I would screw up: say the wrong thing; misunderstand what the clients’ say; not know how to relate, or; not “stomach” their physical appearances, such as drooling (caused by dysphagia). These fears stem from our own need to not feel awkward or seem imperfect. We avert our own discomfort by avoiding the individual with a disability, rooted in our own lack of confidence to relate and connect with him or her. Fortunately, individuals with developmental disabilities are more unconditionally accepting of us than we tend to be of them. Most overlook our inability to understand, as well as our awkward clumsiness in relating to them. No doubt they feel similar fears, as well as frustration and impatience with us, and perhaps, themselves. That, in and of itself, demonstrates we have much in common with each other, with which to relate.
Sound or feel familiar?
We must face fear first by recognizing and acknowledging it exists; pretending it doesn’t only makes matters worse. Succumbing to fear leads to avoidance, lack of confidence, resistance, or quitting. I faced my fear with my “lean into it” philosophy. If I’m busy leaning into the experience, fear has little room to work on me. It’s easier to say, “No thanks;” it more courageous to face one’s fears. Our WFC clients lean into their seemingly insurmountable lives every single day; they face simple tasks on a daily basis to communicate, move their arms, legs, and hands, socialize, even eat, all with great effort and courage! If they can do it, why can’t we find courage when it comes to visiting the WFC campus, volunteering, or starting a new position as a staff member?
If they can do it, there’s no excuse why I can’t.
In the Next Blog Entry: Deep Breaths and Kleenexes - “. . . I felt nervous energy, anxiety and fear. The room felt edgy. I needed to relax . . . “
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